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Pablo Helman, VFX supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic and his team has build the fantasy world of “The Last Airbender,” beginning with the pre-visualization animation created months before filming. And months later, when the cameras stopped rolling, ILM’s work started up again. The post-production schedule included six months to put all of the VFX shots in place, and another four to five months to perfect all of the details in Shyamalan’s sweeping canvas.
Helman explains, “We had a fairly long period of research and development to pinpoint exactly what ‘bending’ would be, would look like. One thing we knew was that, in order for it to work, it needed to be organic. It had to feel believable, but also, it should have the power to propel you into a fantasy world where anything could happen–it needed to have emotion. The Last Airbender” also marked a departure in Shyamalan’s usual filmmaking process. On previous films, he didn’t go to the cutting room to edit until filming was complete. But on “The Last Airbender,” he began to cut during production. Then, he could send edited scenes to ILM so that they could begin their CGI work.
One of ILM’s biggest jobs was also to create fire–which sounds simple enough, but as the predominant weapon of the Fire Nation, the fire in Shyamalan’s script is called upon to do many things. Cremin mostly utilized gas pipes (the rigging of which is very complex), but also created burning debris, flaming fireballs, torches and, of course, smoke. Nearly every type of fire made an appearance in the sequence where Aang and Zuko meet face-to-face. Within the circular set, cast and stunt performers were rigged with wires to walk the walls between explosions (provided courtesy of squibbed pots, wired to detonators outside of the camera’s eye).
ILM did much more than create and extend environments. It was also called upon to create amazing creatures that could only exist in a universe where a handful of people can bend the elements. Among those creatures are: Appa, a six-legged bison, measuring 16 feet tall and 12 feet wide, that swims through the air in a motion derived from the movements of the manatee and platypus; the Fire Nation’s Kimodo Rhino, an animal ridden into battle, coming in at 32 feet long (including tail) and more than 17 feet tall; the flying lemur bat called Momo, who is especially fond of fruit; and the Dragon Spirit, who appears to advise and guide Aang on his treacherous journey. Without exception, these exceptional creatures began life on the set. Sometimes, they were no more than a point on which actors could focus, establishing an eyeline, or a simple chair rig, in which they could sit and simulate ‘riding’ the animal.
Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic - Copyright: © 2010 Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.